Selling Women on Suspense: It’s Better Than E.P.T.!

Readers of the current issue of Glamour —fronted by a post– Bridget Jones Renée Zellweger—might have flipped past page 105’s full-page ad thinking it was another home-pregnancy-test advertisement.

Look closely: The ad is the unlikely pitch for the Don Mills, Ontario–based publisher Harlequin, selling Body Double, the current release by author Vicki Hinze in the recently launched “Silhouette Bombshell” adventure series. The spread—also running in Lucky, Cosmopolitan and People —-depicts the lissome figure of a comely woman with strawberry curled locks, plunked down on the toilet clutching a pregnancy test in her right hand and an open copy of Body Double in her left. She can’t seem to tear her eyes away from the book—even as the test appears to have offered its result. The tagline: “Silhouette Bombshell. No suspense like it.”

While publishers remain frozen by the chick-lit tractor beam, booksellers and authors from Nora Roberts, Catherine Coulter and chick-lit doyenne Helen Fielding continue to seek new sales channels, which publishing experts say has fueled the rise of the female adventure genre. To boost its consumer base, Harlequin launched the Silhouette imprint in July to draw in young female readers who are more likely to preen for Sex and the City reruns on TBS than purchase mass-market paperbacks. Harlequin is bullish on the genre, and forecasts an ambitious publishing schedule: Silhouette now churns out four titles a month penned by a coterie of writers that includes Carla Cassidy. Each book runs $5.50 and features taut, action-driven plots with crafty female heroines skilled at both crime fighting and sultry seduction (romance still sells, of course).

The Glamour spot was part of Silhouette’s aggressive marketing campaign, which seeks to play up the books’ edgy content and suspenseful plotlines.

“We wanted to launch a new line of books and, as we were doing that, we wanted to leverage the most appealing aspects of the series, which is suspense. That’s what the ads do,” said Anita Sultmanis, Harlequin’s marketing director. “The [pregnancy-test] ads tap into the most suspenseful moment of women’s life. To show ‘Silhouette Bombshell’ is suspenseful, we stacked it up to a suspenseful moment women can identify with.”

Consumers seem to be getting the message. Though Harlequin doesn’t release specific sales figures, Ms. Sultmanis said the series has outpaced expectations and fared better than previous launches. The approximately $2 million campaign was created by Zig, a boutique Toronto agency whose clients include Ikea, Unilever and the online-dating Web site Lavalife.

“The premise of the book, and of the series, is suspense. When trying to dramatize suspense, we needed to reach for a cultural icon,” said Andy Macaulay, a Zig partner who directed the Silhouette campaign. “And we did it in a hyperbolic way,” he added. In addition to the pregnancy-test spoof, Zig developed a print spot where a woman waits to see if she has won a $26 million lottery prize. As the results stream across the television screen, she remains glued to the sofa with the winning ticket in one hand and a Silhouette book in the other, missing her big win.

“Clearly, we are showing how engaging these books are,” Mr. Macaulay said.

In commissioning the “Silhouette Bombshell” campaign, Harlequin—mostly known for its gooey romance novels—embarked on an unorthodox, if not controversial, marketing maneuver that carries potential social consequences extending beyond the intended consumer.

According to advertising experts, loaded issues such as pregnancy tests present marketers with a thicket of challenges. Under these constraints, almost every advertisement for a pregnancy test portrays a positive result, accompanied by a smiling mother-to-be and her doting partner (the test in the Silhouette spot shows a “plus” sign on the tester, though Harlequin and Zig representatives wouldn’t confirm if the result was indeed a positive). According to marketing experts, positive results with happy mothers are employed to skirt the issue that is the next logical step: What message would the company convey if a positive test was greeted with panic and dread from the now-expectant woman? Or what if the woman greeted a negative test with a sigh of relief?

No one wants to bring abortion into the mix.

“Part of the reason you don’t want to get into the consequences and ‘what-ifs’ is because then you say, ‘What next?’ There are ethical issues in portraying a woman who is now pregnant but is not happy about it,” said Gita Johar, a professor of marketing at the Columbia Business School. “They show the positive outcome because, as a marketer, you don’t want to alienate anybody.”

Ms. Johar said the home-pregnancy-test market is split into two consumer segments: the “hopeful” (which gets shown in advertising) and the “fearful.” She added that companies often target these groups separately with unique packages and branding to reflect two very different emotional states.

“You don’t need to do as much print advertising with the ‘fearful’ group,” Ms. Johar said. “They’re the ones that rush out to the pharmacy and buy whatever product that is there. The language on the package highlights the product’s accuracy, effectiveness and speed. That is what these customers want to hear.”

But Harlequin remains hopeful that its tongue-in-cheek advertisements will snag potential readers’ attention without any adverse social side effects.

“Often, people don’t give consumers enough credit to look at a message and have fun with it,” Mr. Macaulay said. “Our research said they understood what we were doing.”